Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has virtually wiped his public schedule clean to bone up for his long-awaited April 17 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee—a session widely seen as a crucial test as to whether he will survive the U.S. attorney mess. But even his own closest advisers are nervous about whether he is up to the task. At a recent "prep" for a prospective Sunday talk-show interview, Gonzales's performance was so poor that top aides scrapped any live appearances. During the March 23 session in the A.G.'s conference room, Gonzales was grilled by a team of top aides and advisers—including former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie and former White House lawyer Tim Flanigan—about what he knew about the plan to fire seven U.S. attorneys last fall. But Gonzales kept contradicting himself and "getting his timeline confused," said one participant who asked not to be identified talking about a private meeting. His advisers finally got "exasperated" with him, the source added. "He's not ready," Tasia Scolinos, Gonzales's public-affairs chief, told the A.G.'s top aides after the session was over, said the source. Asked for comment, Scolinos told NEWSWEEK: "This was the first session of this kind that we'd done."
One problem is that Gonzales is increasingly isolated. Top DOJ lawyers have decreed he can't talk about the U.S. attorney firings with Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and his staff, who are key witnesses in an internal Justice inquiry into whether DOJ officials misled Congress. (Any consultation could be viewed as an attempt to "coordinate" their stories.) With his chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, forced to resign, Gonzales has no trusted aide who both knows the facts about the firings and has political skills, according to a top DOJ official who asked not to be named talking about internal matters. Courtney Elwood, a former deputy to Dick Cheney's chief counsel David Addington, who is now working for Gonzales, has taken on a bigger role, shutting down responses to most inquiries from Congress and the news media because she views the firings flap as a purely "legal" issue. "There's nobody quarterbacking this," said another frustrated administration official, who asked not to be identified for the same reasons. "The department is in a state of paralysis." But Gonzales remains determined to make his case. He is spending hours alone in his office, poring over documents and calling members of Congress; his staff is planning "murder board" sessions later this week where outsiders may be brought in to play the roles of Judiciary chair Sen. Patrick Leahy or Sen. Chuck Schumer. Gonzales is likely to start out next week's hearing with a more expansive mea culpa. "The attorney general definitely regrets how this situation has been handled," said Scolinos. "But he firmly believes that nothing improper was done."
Editor's Note: Newsweek reported last week that Justice Department official Courtney Elwood had been "shutting down" most inquiries from Congress and the news media about the firings of U.S. attorneys. Elwood did not respond to Newsweek's request for comment until after deadline. She and another Justice official told Newsweek then that while Elwood did recommend holding up some responses to Congress and the news media, she did so only to make sure they were fully accurate before they were released.